This was a curious film. It was intriguing in the way it put a focus on the pretentiousness of the art world, yet I felt strangely detached from any of the characters. Perhaps that was intentional — in order to highlight the "members only" atmosphere, they had to put the lead character on the outside striving to get in.
The story focuses on Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), a wanna-be great artist who follows his dream by enrolling at Strathmore Academy, an arts college where he takes a major in drawing and painting. Max is soon faced with many problems that any college freshman will encounter — strange roommates, a plethora of attractive women (including the one that is unattainable), professors and their assignments, not to mention just trying to find your way.
Max has his sights set very high; he aspires to nothing short of becoming the greatest artist of the 21st century. A lofty goal to be sure, and one that can't really be an aspiration. Max seems to think that greatness can be learned, but over the course of the film, he learns that it is more a case of being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people.
He goes to class, tries to avoid his creepy classmates, and seeks to find his voice. However, his teacher, Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich), seems to be more interested in possibly furthering his own stalled career, and is not terribly good at doling out advice. Max struggles to find his way, searching for his voice by emulating others. Soon, he attracts the attention of his romantic aspirations, although he is outclassed at every turn. At the same time, he finds a way of garnering attention, possibly finding his big break on the journey to art world stardom.
In his relationship with the model of his dreams, Audrey (the gorgeous Sophia Myles), he meets her gallery owner father, and other art figures who may be able to afford him his big break. Of course, he has to get through the class first. His plans for getting through the class brings us to the film's subplot.
Unfortunately, it was deemed necessary to include a subplot which imposes a structure on what could have been a more surreal look at the pretentiousness of the art world and the impossibility of teaching or learning talent. The subplot involves a serial strangler that is terrorizing the campus, claiming several victims throughout the film. This affects not only Max, but his roommate, Vince (Ethan Suplee), who is making a pseudo-documentary about the killer. It affects Max through some decisions made later on in the film, but it takes a real stretch to get there and just feels forced and unnecessary. The movie would have been much better had this plot been dropped and the focus placed more squarely on the assemblage of oddities in the cast.
I enjoyed the movie for that primary focus of the inner machinations of the art world, and the observations made on the interpretation of art in general. Max has some great moments while commenting on the work of his classmates, while the rest of the class berates him for not being able to "understand." Watching Max become disillusioned, yet never waver in his pursuit of greatness, is fascinating.
Almost as enjoyable are the variety of characters that surround Max. This includes Vince, his not-in-the-closet other roommate, Bardo, the various people in his drawing class, and the failed artist, Jimmy. There are also teachers and restaurateurs, and other even more odd characters to watch.
Ultimately, I liked the movie but it was frustrating. I would have liked to have been able to connect with one of the characters. That isn't a necessity, but it would have helped. More importantly, they should have jettisoned the whole strangler subplot, it felt so forced and put on that it ruined the whole flow of the movie.
Bottom line. It is an enjoyable enough film that could have been better. Fortunately, it was not ruined entirely, I still found enough to enjoy to easily give this a recommendation. The performances were generally good, particularly John Malkovich.